Ethan Nichtern comes from deeply planted Buddhist roots. His father, David Nichtern, is a well-known Buddhist teacher; and his mother, Janice Ragland*, is a painter who later became a psychotherapist. Given this background, much is expected of his latest book.
Nichtern’s The Road Home restates, in thoughtful prose, many widely recognized Buddhist principles, such as the practice of generosity (dana), which is a practice of letting go, and refers to the notion that aversion to suffering can cause us to engage in “evasive maneuvers” like turning away from our own suffering and the suffering of others. This book offers real insights and shines most brightly on the topic of communicating mindfully. Nichtern astutely observes several obstacles to good communication. One is wanting to tell your own story. He brilliantly notes that in telling your own story prematurely, we hijack the other person’s opportunity to share her experience, diminishing trust and connectedness.
Readers will appreciate Nichtern’s reminders about mindful listening and his caution about giving unsolicited advice, even when the giver believes that the advice is useful and honest and offers it with generosity and kindness. This is especially true when advice is given too early, cutting off the speaker’s sense of being fully heard.
We know all too well the effects of multitasking on our ability to stay focused and concentrated, and Nichtern, again, points to distraction as a sort of new normal, where our attention is fractured nearly all of the time, compromising our capacity for relatedness.
One of the most poignant stories in the book is Nichtern’s personal account of sitting on a plane and feeling totally alone and vulnerable, realizing after a recent breakup that there is absolutely no one to text. In the moment, as any good student of Buddhism would do, he begins to practice with these emotions. He breathes. He allows himself to feel the immense sweep of sadness; it passes.
While The Road Home is a useful and sturdy introduction to many Buddhist principles, I have real concerns about several aspects of the book. In a section on “Four Types of Idiot Compassion,” Nichtern’s comments about Martin Luther King Jr.’s lack of self-care could use greater reflection. Additionally, in Nichtern’s observation about responsible sexuality, he says, “A one-night stand isn’t problematic because it happens out of wedlock.” Instead, he says it is problematic because, from the standpoint of karma (cause and effect), it encourages grasping. For me at least, while grasping and desire are major issues, the deeper concern with “irresponsible sexuality” is not grasping but covering up loneliness or other afflictive emotions through sex.
As a longtime student of Thich Nhat Hanh, I have listened to many Dharma talks on the topic of desire and grasping. In his book Fidelity, Nhat Hanh makes clear what many of us already know, perhaps from hard lessons learned: sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional or spiritual intimacy. And sex cannot relieve feelings of loneliness.
Nevertheless, Nichtern has written an engaging book that many readers will find a useful introduction to Buddhist practices.
*UPDATED March 11, 2016: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Ethan Nichtern’s mother.